Washington Prowler

Judicial Despair

Did the White House think the November elections could save Priscilla Owen? Also: Cheapo Al Gore.

By 9.9.02

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NO WAY OUT ON OWEN
Given that the White House seemingly did everything it could to clear a confirmation path for Texas Supreme Court justice Priscilla Owen, there was still some consideration last week of asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to withdraw her name in hopes that she could be renominated after the November elections, according to a Republican Judiciary Committee staffer. "I don't know how seriously they really thought about it," he says, "but given that it was obvious Democrats weren't going to let her pass, it had to be something to ponder."

Just as the Senate was coming back last week from summer break, Republican Judiciary staffers told the White House they saw no way that Owen would be approved in committee. This, despite the "well-qualified" rating she received from the American Bar Association, something Democrats claim is needed for confirmation nowadays. "With [Charles] Pickering, there's a perception here that the White House didn't do its homework in bringing him up here, but you can't say that about Owen," says the Republican staffer. "There's no way she should have been turned away."

The Owen defeat is embarrassing for Bush and his judicial appointments team. They had received initial indications that California Democrat Dianne Feinstein was open to and supportive of the Owen nomination. But Feinstein stood up front and center last Thursday and shot Owen down.

Any thoughts the White House might have had of temporarily pulling Owen from consideration would involve a November election in which Republicans won Senate seats in Missouri, Minnesota, and New Jersey and held seats in South Carolina and North Carolina. With those in hand, the White House feels Senate leadership would return to Republicans, allowing a somewhat easier time for Bush judicial nominations.

The electoral map is becoming increasingly important on judicial issues because rumors continue to swirl around Washington that there will be at least one retirement in the Supreme Court this fall. "The vote against Owen is bad news for [White House counsel] Alberto Gonzales," says the Republican staffer about the man thought to head Bush's list of nominees to the high court. "His record on the court in Texas is similar in many ways to hers. How do they lay down a defense of him when the two are so similar?"

If that's the case, then the Owen nomination debacle is doubly bad for Gonzales, since it was his dissenting position on a Texas abortion case that was repeatedly used by Democrats against Owen to kill her nomination. In that case, Gonzales was said to have called the Owen ruling "unconscionable."

For their part, Democratic staffers say there is a sense of the imperative on important Senate committees such as Judiciary and Foreign Relations to scuttle as much of the Bush agenda as possible this fall. "If we're going to go to war later this year, there's no way the Bushies are going to be coming back to us with legislation and nominations that they want to revisit," one of these staffers says. "They'll be too busy waging war overseas and they will have spent almost all their political capital to do that."

PALTRY AL
There was a lot of head scratching in Washington and Tennessee over news early last week that Al Gore's political action committee had to withhold salaries from five or six full-time staffers due to fundraising shortfalls. Gore's spokespeople went out spinning to the press that in fact Gore had the money to pay those staffers but that they chose instead to put off being paid so that their boss could make the necessary donations to his political allies in important Senate races. But somehow that story doesn't seem to wash, given the amount of money being raised and distributed this election cycle.

In all, according to Federal Election Commission filings, Gore paid out no more than $70,000 in donations, which included the maximum $5,000 to Senate candidates in Texas, Maine, New Hampshire, and Washington state and to other candidates in Iowa and South Carolina.

Given the talk of Gore's supposed prodigious fundraising ability and access to highpowered donors, $70,000 seems a paltry figure when compared to the money senators like Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle have been throwing around the country.

Just as surprising as the small amount Gore has distributed was the seeming high overhead his PAC appears to carry. This quarter's FEC filings included a number of rental car, limo and hotel payments as well as underwriting for his political retreat in Memphis earlier this year.

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